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Bruce Brager Articles
Book Review: Operation Paperclip
Book Review: Midnight Rising
Cuban Missile Crisis
Memorials Past and Future
American Way of War
Flip Side of Containment
Stephen Douglas and Popular Sovereignty
The Start: Jumonville's Glen
Winter Warfare
The City Point Explosion
A Cold War Retrospective
John Paul Jones & Asymetric Warfare
Early Texas Military History
The Office of Strategic Services
The Battle of St. Etienne

Book Reviews
Security First

Books by Bruce L. Brager 

The Texas 36th Division

John Paul Jones America's Sailor

There He Stands: The Story Of Stonewall Jackson

The Iron Curtain: The Cold War in Europe

Book Review - The Sling and the Stone: On War in the 21st Century by USMC, Colonel Thomas X. Hammes, USMC

The Sling and the Stone: On War in the 21st Century
by Colonel Thomas X. Hammes, USMC

List Price: $24.95  Hardback: 336 Pages
Publisher: Zenith Press
Publish Date: Sept. 12, 2004

Review by Bruce L. Brager.

Writers for, and readers of,, not to mention writers and readers of any of the military and political history books mentioned on this web site, should have taken at least one lesson from our readings and our writings. Like most such lessons, it is easy to state, almost clichéd, but is often ignored. The lesson is - Asking the wrong questions leads almost inexorably to the wrong answers. "Almost," because luck is always a factor in life. Battles can be won be accident. The "on any Sunday" factor applies here as well as on the sports field.

But it is very hard to win a war by luck, as throughout the sports season talent will win out, not just talent but planning, asking the right questions and doing what you need to find and carry out the right answers, will overcome the luck which may give battles an odd and unexpected result.

Thomas X. Hammes, a recently retired colonel in United States Marine Corps with experience dealing with insurgency and terrorism, asks one basic question but very important question in his book, published in 2004 (while Hammes was still on active duty) but still very important reading. What type of wars will this country likely fight in the coming few decades? He asks an equally basic supporting question – Why do we assume our potential enemies, having seen what happens to anyone who takes the United States on in conventional warfare, is going do to so? Our enemies are not stupid.

Hammes' fundamental point in this well-written book is that we have to ask what type of warfare our enemies will fight. He shows, by examining different cases from history – military history is far more than just interesting -- that our current and potential enemies will seek a method of warfare that attacks us where we are weakest – an ancient core military principle, by the way. Enemies will go after our will to fight, our patience and persistence to see potentially vast long term efforts through.

Hammes defines the first three generations of warfare. First generation warfare reflected what are called linear tactics, using columns and lines of men. "The essential requirement was to mass manpower at the point of main effort," as Hammes puts it. Second generation is firepower based, and culminated in World War One trench warfare. Third generation, most visible in World War II, is maneuver based. Fourth generation warfare, in Hammes' words:

". . . uses all available networks – political, economic, social, and military – to convince an enemy's political decision makers that their strategic goals are either unavailable or too costly for the perceived benefits. It is an evolved form of insurgency. . . Unlike previous generations of warfare, it does not attempt to win by defeating the enemy's military forces. Instead. . . it directly attacks the minds of enemy decision makers to destroy the enemy's political will."

Hammes uses the Vietnam War, and the Soviet war in Afghanistan, as examples of weaker powers using unconventional methods to defeat far stronger conventional powers. Interestingly, Hammes cites the September 11, 2001 attacks on the Pentagon and the World Trade Center as strategic mistakes on the part of Al Qaeda. The best way to attack political will is to make the results not worth the cost. Measures that seem to strike directly at national welfare, however unlikely they are to destroy the nation, only strengthen political will. Hammes says that Al Qaeda paid a heavy price for its brutal overreach.

Hammes worries that the American military establishment is preparing for the wrong kind of warfare, against a future symmetrical enemy. Symmetrical enemies rely on conventional means to stand up and confront the United States, at least initially. Our most recent symmetrical enemy was Saddam Hussein. But, as experts have pointed out, we are not likely to have an enemy in the future nice enough to just stand there posturing, waiting for us to clobber him. Most potential enemies, even advanced centralized governments such as the Chinese – sometimes called a future "peer competitor' - are certain to realize that in conventional warfare of any type against the United States they are probably going to lose. The American military is just too good, and we may end up the victims of our own success if we let the battle shift away from our strengths.

Hammes calls for "teaching" flexibility. Teach our military to be able to respond to the likelihood of attack anywhere by any means. Teach the military to recognize the changing nature of the battlefield – that term may itself be obsolete – and how to respond. Teach the military that technology is valuable, but the human factor is likely to remain the deciding factor for the foreseeable future. Teach the military, and the civilians agencies with which it will have to work, to be able to cope with change. (Hammes thinks it likely that an as yet undefined Fifth Generation Warfare may already be emerging.)

Hannes mentions, though the one weakness of this book may not stress enough, that we still may face older forms of warfare. The basic need to "expect the unexpected" provides an excellent reason to maintain the American edge in conventional warfare while adapting to new methods. (In World War Two, the United States developed the ultimate propeller drive war plans, the P-51 fighter and the B-29 bomber, while also working to create the atomic bomb.) Being able to react means having the resources to implement what national leadership considers the proper course of action – having the army we want, not just the army we have. Coming up with an appropriate response does little good if one lacks the resources to carry out the response.

Our main resource, however, has to be the ability to learn, since however much we try we will never anticipate all future threats. Flexibility and the ability to adapt have always been major American characteristics. We succeed when they come to the fore, fail when they recede to the background. "The unexpected is woven into every generation of war; it is foolish to think we will be exempt. We have to build flexible organizations."

Hammes uses historical examples to make many of his points. This is appropriate. Descriptions of the war in Vietnam, and Al Qaeda, where enemies achieved great success by skirting our strengths and hitting us at our weaknesses, should sound familiar. Psychological warfare against enemy leaders, not to mention the motivating power of an idea, were the major elements in how the United States became independent from Great Britain. Asymmetric warfare was how a poorly armed band of rebels defeated the greatest superpower of its day.

Review by Bruce L. Brager (


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Copyright © 2006 Bruce L. Brager. 

Written by Bruce L. Brager. If you have questions or comments on this article, please contact Bruce L. Brager at:

About the author:
Bruce Brager is a writer specializing in military history, defense and foreign policy. He is the author of ten published books and over fifty published articles.

Published online: 06/08/2006.

* Views expressed by contributors are their own and do not necessarily represent those of MHO.

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